In 2015, an article from The Economist welcomed us into the new era of drones. The subject came back to me this summer thanks to my young daughter’s curiosity.
We were strolling and enjoying the view of Piazzale Michelangelo in Firenze with our family, when a drone approached us. My daughter looked up and asked: “Dad, what’s that thing flying in front of us?” seeming a little worried.
And behind her question, I realized that despite my surface confidence (“it’s probably a recreational drone, or a photo enthusiast…”), I was unable to reassure her on the function and intentions of this object (could it be the police or someone with bad intentions?).
Indeed, as opposed to our usual game with her and her younger brother where we would say “look at the fire truck and its huge ladder” or “that’s a red tractor like Uncle”, or even “where do you think that flying plane is going to ?”, in this instance, I didn’t know what to say. I had to accept that she and I were witnessing a new era of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO).
What does this new era mean for us humans, observers and spectators of this new flying ballet? How will we develop identification codes, learn to recognize these new objects, and live with them? And how can and should industrialists help us to do so?
We’ll develop this reflection around the identification of these new flying objects in 2 parts: First we’ll address general public concerns, and secondly, the professional side of air traffic management.
Part 1 – The drones in everyday life, a story of Darwinian evolution?
Imagine yourself in a jungle 350 million years ago, as an amphibian…
I know this requires a lot of projection effort 😉 You have evolved – your species – over millions of years and acquired everything you need to understand your environment and recognize your fellow species and other species, friends or enemies.
And then one day (or almost) – about 250 million years ago – dinosaurs show up!
So you had to learn everything again: recognizing their differences, their behaviors, which were the friendly species (nice herbivores, but so huge), and especially the enemies, the (very) bad predators with sharp teeth, ready to eat you in a single bite.
This little bit of history that sounds like Jurassic Park is unfortunately today’s reality: we humans are confronted with a new species, the drones!
These new UFOs are among us and we will have to learn to recognize them in order to better live with them.
For example, in (almost?) every city in the world, being a pedestrian is a difficult experience, not too dissimilar from being a fragile amphibian surrounded by predators in the jungle.
These predators are all rolling vehicles that are not equal to us in size, weight and speed of travel.
Throughout the time of humanity and that of our experience alive we learnt to distinguish many types of vehicles: scooters from bicycles, mopeds from motorcycles, small cars from large 4x4s, vans from trucks, ambulances from police cars, etc.
All our senses contribute to this immediate recognition that will make us feel safe or in danger.
And it is above all sight and hearing that we use:
. Through sight we recognize and distinguish the shapes, sizes and visual signifiers of these vehicles (colour, signals, lights) as well as their behavior (speed, movement)
. Through hearing, we can further distinguish: the noise of a motorcycle engine is not the same as that of a car or truck; the siren of firefighters is different from the siren of an ambulance or police…) and behavior (we recognize the nuances of a vehicle’s engine if it accelerates or brakes, we hear the tires screech when it breaks suddenly….).
We can use these cues to adapt our behaviour. Any “user” of the city and its urban space knows to:
. cross at the right time when vehicles brake at the stop sign and do not accelerate,
. call a taxi and not a delivery truck,
. be more aware when you hear a fireman’s siren/ambulance/police siren,
. get on the (right) bus, not in a tanker truck,
. exercise caution when you have right of way but you’re on a bike and facing a truck launched at full speed.
There are hundreds of other examples, which are the result of over a 100 years of vehicle evolution in our lives. And everyday, new examples arise: how should we adapt our behavior in the wake of self-service scooters taking over cities ? How does it affect the visually impaired?
Outside of cities and in other countries, the stress for amphibians I mentioned, has been experienced for a few years by civilians living in conflict zones as they face weaponized drones – suggested reading on this topic: presented through the eyes of an NGO, a war philosopher (sic), or the very interesting book by another philosopher Gregoire Chamayou “Théorie du Drone” at La Fabrique éditions –.
Terrorized and terrified by these wars, of which they are only helpless victims, they are confronted on a daily basis with the fear of surveillance campaigns and bombardment by military drones. They try to adapt by guessing their shape, their behaviour, their country of origin… But the threat remains and they continue living with constant fear gripping their stomachs.
This stress, this permanent danger, is not to be wished on anyone, except it is now part of our daily life. While we can still feel safe in Florence, what about everywhere else?
Isn’t it time for manufacturers of these objects to work with designers so that these objects can finally be IDENTIFIABLE?
Whether it be by their formal affordance, their colour or their signage, the solutions are infinite, so that tomorrow, people can confidently understand the function and intention of these objects.
I want to be able to answer my daughter- or ideally she could answer it herself – by recognizing in this drone:
. a leisure drone from a photo enthusiast, or even a professional photographer taking pictures,
. a delivery drone (logistics), restocking tourist items to the small stand nearby,
. a travel agency drone, approaching a tourist to inform him that his bus is about to leave
. a drone from the city’s services, monitoring the number of visitors on the square to populate a public database,
. a police drone, watching out for pickpockets in this highly touristic place….
To conclude, and give you an idea of what we will soon be able to experience in this new era of drones, here is a very eloquent graph taken from an article on Blomberg.com at the end of 2018, exposing Airbus’ projections on the number of aircraft flying above (in) Paris in 2035:
Yes, you read it right! Airbus estimates that by 2035 there will be more than 20,000 UAV flights per hour to Paris (the vast majority of which have very good logistics and delivery) – compared to almost nothing at present.
We have 15 years to get used to it….